Theology and the “Han” of Hip Hop: A Short Note on Han, Hip Hop, and South Asian Americans Performing Blackness

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Intro

In his chapter on “The Sources and Norms of Black Theology” in A Black Theology of Liberation (1990), James Cone cites Black culture as one starting place for doing theology insofar as it gives expression to Black self-reflection on the joys and pains of Black experience and Black history.1 Taking seriously the liberationist claim that “God’s revelation comes to us in and through the cultural situation of the oppressed,”2 Black theology recognizes through Black culture God’s presence in America and God’s participation in Black liberation3—understood as the political right to self-determine. Similarly, the Asian concept of han takes as its focal point the experience of the oppressed, decentering emphasis in Western theologies on the sins of the oppressor and focusing instead on all those aspects of human existence which constitute han according to minjung (read “the people’s”) theology: “frustrated hope”, “the collapsed feeling of pain”, “‘letting go’”, “resentful bitterness”, and “the wounded heart.”4

In shifting the locus of attention to the experience of those at society’s margins, theologies of resistance such as those of Black liberation and minjung offer an invitation to redress the wounds of systemic violence. They call us to an awareness of the consequences of social-structural sin as they reverberate in the groans, moans, and shouts of the ones who suffer—articulated in songs of mourning and lament such as is heard in Negro spirituals, the Jewish psalms, or Korean poetry5 or in more active forms of protest such as “street demonstrations, citizen uprisings, and revolutions.”6 Han therefore manifests as a fraught tension between the active will to revolt on one hand and a passive will to despair on the other; it is meanwhile individual and collective in its dimensions and never without some element of hope, even as it anguishes.7

The liberationist injunction to understand history through the perspective of the oppressed, particularly in terms of cultural production, invites us to consider the ways in which contemporary modes of cultural self-expression give voice to experiences of displacement, understood in the context of this essay as han—that “feeling of unresolved resentment against injustices suffered, a sense of helplessness because of the overwhelming odds against one, a feeling of acute pain in one’s guts and bowels, making the whole body writhe and squirm, and an obstinate urge to take revenge and to right the wrong—all these combined.8 Hip hop is one such cultural mode that has been taken up by practitioners across the ethno-racial spectrum around the globe for the purposes of speaking truth to power. In light of this, the following essay hones in on hip hop, namely rap music, as a medium of Black cultural self-expression that gives voice to han and thereby offers theologians a vibrant point of reference, a source, for doing liberation theology. To illustrate this point, the essay culls from a recent ethnographic account of South Asian Americans and hip hop that examines how non-Black rappers signify on Blackness as a means by which to articulate suffering and protest those social ills of which their suffering is symptomatic.

Hip Hop, Han and Desis

A global phenomenon that is heterogeneous at its roots/routes, hip hop functions to cultivate what Black British cultural critic Paul Gilroy (1993) calls “diasporic intimacy”—that is, a shared sense of transnational belonging between marginalized groups subjected to experiences of social dislocation in the context of late capitalism and its austerities. In this vein, hip hop provides a cultural platform through breakdancing, graffiti, turntablism, and rapping for giving voice to the “cultural situation of the oppressed” around the globe. Indeed, many current studies in hip hop focus on the ways in which what is viewed as a predominately (American) Black form of self-making now circulates internationally as a medium for ideology critique that signifies on Blackness as marker of marginality9—a stance of protest situated at the crossroads of hope and despair which is, like han, individual and collective in its dimensions. In much the same way that other media of cultural self-making such as the spirituals, psalms, and poetry are rife with implications for doing theology so too is hip hop, particularly in the form of rap music, or rhymed storytelling over synthesized drum beats. The themes of rap music often revolve around the plight of the urban poor who have engaged in the medium to portray the everyday struggles of negotiating the structural forces of racism in America and abroad. In the spirit of han, rap music calls us to an awareness of these forces as refracted through detailed lyrical accounts of pain, heartbreak, letting go, despair and hope that inform the rap artist’s orientation toward the world.

African and American Asian studies scholar Nitasha Tamar Sharma’s Hip Hop Desis: South Asian Americans, Blackness, and a Global Race Consciousness (2010) is instructive on this point. In this ethnography of South Asian Americans (referred to colloquially as desis) and hip hop, Sharma examines the ways in which some desis navigate the tricky terrain of racial identity politics in hip hop through a conscious identification with “American Blackness” in what she calls “racialized hip hop”—that is, “the use of hip hop to develop a sense of racial identity, group solidarity and the negotiation of racial politics”—that works in tandem with the cultivation of a “global race consciousness.”10 A global race consciousness implies an understanding of race as socially constructed category that has been deployed to secure racial hierarchies. It thus “refers to race as a matter of critical understanding” as well as a way “of thinking about and being in the world rather than a reference to an individual’s biology or phenotype.”11 In other words, it treats race as a kind of epistemology, a theory of knowing, informed by an historical consciousness of global racial formation and the logics of white supremacy on which it is predicated.

Sharma’s project accounts for the ways in which desis, including queer-identified female desi rappers, draw upon Blackness through the most relevant expression of it at this time, hip hop, in order to construct an “alternative desiness [emphasis added]” rooted in “interminority solidarity” and a global race consciousness which functions to reconceptualize race as a “shared ideology and consciousness of how power operates through racism.”12 Representing a “broad spectrum of Asian and Pacific Islander youth, including Filipinos, Chinese, Cambodians, and Samoans,” desi hip hoppers deploy a “‘strategic anti-essentialism’”13—that is, a conscious identification with the racial other—through racialized hip hop, which is “sonically and thematically familiar to American hip hop audiences with its lyrics that address inequalities and injustices against minorities.”14

One example, among many, with which Shamar engages to demonstrate desi deployment of racialized hip hop is a song by rapper D’Lo called “Police Brutality” (1997) in which the queer-identified desi hip hopper takes a stand against racial profiling through the lens of the profiled (Alicia Soltero, Rodney King, and Abner Louima, respectively):15

 

Listeners heard the screams

And saw in the beams of light

The primary colors of

Red, Blue, Black and White

But no fight was put up,

They shut up.

As they saw Alicia and Rodney and

Poor lil’ Abner

Get their bodies massacred.

It occurred to be a helpless situation

Of tribulation.

Scared adults

Protect themselves

From ‘Peace’ officers.

 

Focusing on the helplessness of those victims of state sanctioned violence and his/her own helplessness in responding to the reality of police brutality, D’Lo evokes a sense of han through the anti-statist rhetoric of hip hop.16

In other performances of racialized hip hop, desi artists deploy civil rights and Black Power ideologies to scrutinize post 9-11 xenophobia, the failures of public policy to repair the inequities of structural racism, and anti-immigrant fervor in the United States. In this way, desis demonstrate a political commitment to the human rights of racial minorities through a Black cultural medium that has allowed them a mouthpiece through which to articulate their own experiences of racial discrimination—that is, their individual and collective han.

Consider rapper Chee Malabar’s “Oblique Brown”, which draws on a memory of being pulled over in his car by a White police officer:17

 

Yup, guess I’m America’s worst nightmare

‘Cause I’m young, brown and look Middle Eastern, yea

‘Now get out the car, hands up on the floor!’

I said, ‘My sister went to Seton Hall I know about the law’

He’s like, ‘Dude, your face is probable cause’

 

In these and other instances of cross-racial solidarity, South Asian American hip hoppers engage in Black culture as an ideological platform to perform Blackness as a political ideology by which to bring about the work of redress, not only in the laments voiced in their lyricism but in the revolt registered through their activism as well. For example, rapper D’Lo was part of the Artists Network of Refuse and Resist and the 911 anti-police brutality organization defending Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal18 while MC Vivek, a South Asian who self-identifies politically as Black, founded Umoja, “an educational organization,” and cofounded Timap for Justice, which “provides legal services for poor Sierra Leonians.”19

With these and other like-minded desi artists in mind, Sharma contends that hip hop is a “multi-racial production of a Black popular culture” that is polycultural at its roots.20 Polyculturalism is “the idea that people forge cultures by incorporating ‘outside influences’ through interactions” and which thereby rests on the notion that “no cultural group is a pure, bounded, and self-referential entity.”21

In its function as a universal “language” that is a source of pleasure and a pleasurable way to convey a strong message that is linked to politics, (rap) music opens itself up for practitioners of all races despite the authenticity debates over who is allowed to practice.22 As such, adopting hip hop is a political choice that serves to contextualize oppression when practiced in a way conscious of the genre’s associations with Black political, existential, and spiritual self-determination—practiced as a way to mediate experiences of displacement, exercise empathy for the displaced, protest the individuals and institutions responsible for displacing, express han, and therefore “fight the powers that be” (à la the Black Power invective of rap group Public Enemy).

According to Sharma, “Desi hip hop artists fall within a legacy of non-Blacks drawn to the rebellion in Black expressive forms—including the blues, jazz, and hip hop—that refer to messages of revolt against the master narratives of American history and meritocracy.”23 Furthermore, Sharma notes:24

[T]hey specifically picked up on the positive messages of politicized rappers and were pulled to the early rhymes of resistance that sonically and intellectually represented a counterhegemonic and anti-racist sensibility.

In this, style is a critical way of bridging the gap between Black and non-Black practitioners as it, in the words of cultural critic Dick Hebdige, “’displaces the attention away from the question of ethnic origin onto the question of how to build affinities on a shared cultural and aesthetic ground.’”25  “Neither hip hop as racially transcendent nor hip hop as strictly Black suffices,” writes Sharma, “Ultimately, their theorizations reveal a movement toward a third perspective, which can be characterized by [the notion] of a ‘wider Black consciousness.’”26 This consciousness is very much informed by a contextualized understanding of the “legacy of disenfranchisement” that “shapes the content and form of hip hop as well as its politics of exclusion and inclusion.”27

Outro

Inasmuch as hip hop, which is considered by many hip hop historians to be a traditionally Black cultural medium, fosters this kind of “diasporic intimacy” rooted/routed in the han of the racially oppressed across cultures, ethnicities, and races, it serves theology well to locate hip hop as a fertile site not only for analysis, but as a kind of theological praxis as well. In other words, theologies of resistance would do well to school themselves in and practice hip hop as a “postcolonial art” 28—an aesthetic, epistemology, and politics—that offers its audience and practitioners a Black cultural “grammar of opposition”29 in the struggle of postcolonial peoples against the injustices that hegemony renders commonsensical.

By signifying on Blackness as a political ideology that centers non-White experiences of marginalization through counter-hegemonic narratives rooted/routed in subaltern memory, South Asian American hip hoppers engage in a practice of a rap-inflected han that fulfills the aims of the liberationist project, whether it is articulated as a Black theology of liberation, a minjung theology, or otherwise insofar as it emboldens solidarity between the oppressed across lines of class, ethnicity, gender, race, and sexual orientation. Through their conscious identification with the plight of Blacks in America, desis enact “new modes of friendship” across these lines and thus embody what Paul Gilroy would call a “politics of transfiguration,” which is “consequent on the overcoming of the racial oppression on which modernity and its antimony of rational, Western progress as excessive barbarity relied,” as well as a “politics of fulfillment,” which is predicated on involvement in the productive process and a future actualization of those promises that present society has left unfulfilled.30

Desi hip hoppers demonstrate in their lyricism an expression of han as an “ethos of racial lamentation”31 that is not without its “corporate will to revolt,”32 evidenced in their activism, that seeks justice for the oppressed. In this way, they provide theologians with fodder for understanding how the “original intention of the Jesus movement,” which is “to bring about the wholeness of creation,”33 might be expressed in and through the (hip hop) culture of the oppressed, the hip hop of han.

 

Robert Peach
Ph.D. Candidate in Interdisciplinary Studies
Graduate Theological Union (GTU)

 


  1. James Cone, “The Sources and Norms of Black Theology,” A Black Theology of Liberation (New York: Orbis Books, 1990), 27. 
  2. Ibid., 28. 
  3. Ibid. 
  4. See Andrew Sung Park, The Wounded Heart of God: The Asian Concept of Han and the Christian Doctrine of Sin. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1993): 9-30. 
  5. Riffing on Park, ibid., 40-41. 
  6. Ibid., 36. 
  7. See “The Structure of Han,” ibid., 31-44. 
  8. Minjung theologian Suh Nam-dong, quoted in Boo-wong Yoo, Korean Pentecostalism: Its History and Theology (New York: Verlag Peter Lang, 1988), 221. 
  9. See, for instance, H. Samy Alim, Awad Ibrahim, and Alastair Pennycook, ed., Global Linguistic Flows: Hip Hop Cultures, Youth Identities, and the Politics of Language (New York: Routledge, 2009); Halifu Osumare, The Africanist Aesthetic in Global Hip-Hop: Power Moves (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007); Marc D. Perry, “Hip Hop’s Diasporic Landscapes of Blackness,” in From Toussaint to Tupac: the Black International Since the Age of Revolution, ed. Michael O. West, William G. Merton, and Fanon Che Wilkins (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009). 
  10. Nitasha Tamar Sharma, Hip Hop Desis: South Asian Americans, Blackness, and Global Race Consciousness (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), x. 
  11. Ibid., 2. 
  12. Ibid., 3-5. 
  13. Ibid., 111. Cf. George Lipsitz, Dangerous Crossroads: Popular Music, Postmodernism, and the Poetics of Place (New York: Verso, 1994). 
  14. Sharma, op. cit., 112. 
  15. Quoted in ibid., 127-128. 
  16. For more on this topic see Paul Gilroy, ‘There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack’ (New York: Routledge, 1992), 199. 
  17. Quoted in Sharma, op. cit., 133. 
  18. Ibid., 128. 
  19. Ibid., 114-15. 
  20. Ibid., 22-23 
  21. Ibid. 
  22. Ibid., 196. 
  23. Ibid., 199. 
  24. Ibid., 200. 
  25.  Ibid., 202. Cf. Dick Hebdige, “Digging for Britain: An Excavation in Seven Parts,” in Black British Cultural Studies: A Reader, ed. Houston Baker, Manthia Diawara, and Ruth Lindeborg (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 141. 
  26. Sharma, op. cit., 217. 
  27. Ibid., 222. 
  28. Sampling George Lipsitz, Dangerous Crossroads, op. cit., 30. 
  29. Ibid. 
  30. See Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993), 37-38. 
  31. Park, op. cit., 40. 
  32. Ibid., 36. 
  33. Ibid., 178. 


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